The first footage of what would become Final Fantasy 15 debuted in 2006, a full decade ago. At that time the game was called Final Fantasy Versus 13, a spin-off to the Final Fantasy 13 trilogy. I remember following news of the game’s development and Final Fantasy 13’s release. The game and its two sequels remain some of the most infamous entries to the series to this day, with some fans complaining that the trilogy’s flat characters, poorly-told story and badly-implemented combat system consigned the trilogy to the trash bin (this is where I stand). Others, while admitting the game’s flaws in terms of story and characters, praised its combat system for being new and innovative. Of course these two positions hardly reflect the wide range of opinions that fans hold; over the years I’ve seen players put forward hundreds of arguments about the quality of the Final Fantasy 13 trilogy. During the years of the 13 trilogy I knew that the Final Fantasy series was heading to a point of crisis: it had lost its luster. The brand was no longer synonymous with quality, as it had been in the halcyon days of Final Fantasy 7 or 9. If the series continued to put out titles like 13 that generated such controversy, then it would be in serious danger.
Then came the announcement in 2013 that Final Fantasy Versus 13 was going to be rebranded Final Fantasy 15. As images and small details trickled in about Noctis, his friends and his world I grew cautiously optimistic. Perhaps this title would pull Final Fantasy from the brink and undo the damage that 13 had done. I knew that this was a make it or break it moment for the series and so I carefully scrutinized all the information that I could gather about Final Fantasy 15. I waited and waited as the game was delayed and delayed again until it finally hit shelves on November 29th, 2016. I admit that I was a bit nervous to play it. Would the ten-year wait be worth it? Could this game recall the sense of wonder and magic that had made me play titles like Final Fantasy 7, 9 and 10 over and over again? Could Noctis save not only his kingdom of Lucis but Final Fantasy as well?
Let’s begin with the game’s story and writing (don’t worry; I’ll keep this review spoiler-free). In the world of Eos, the kingdom of Lucis and the empire of Niflheim are at war. The king of Lucis sends his son Noctis and his three best friends Prompto, Ignis and Gladiolus on a road trip to the kingdom of Tenebrae so that Noctis can marry his fiancée the princess Lunafreya, an oracle to the gods. After the prince and his retinue depart, the emperor of Niflheim and its chancellor Ardyn come to Lucis to negotiate a peace treaty. But the treaty turns out to be a ruse: the empire invades, kills the king and steals the Crystal, a holy artifact that ensures the peace of Lucis and the stability of the world. In the wake of that catastrophe, it’s up to Noctis and his friends to enlist the aid of the gods, return home to Lucis and defeat the empire.
The set-up is typical Final Fantasy faire but the plot does include a few twists that shake up the usual formula. The plot’s greatest strength isn’t in the overarching events of the story which, especially after Noctis and friends visit the city of Altissia, unfold in a somewhat confusing and rushed manner. At that chapter the game takes a major turn and introduces several new plot elements but these new elements don’t have the time to develop as major event follows major event in a mad rush to the end. Despite the quickened pace of the second half of the game, the finale is fantastic both visually and narratively. Before Altissia, the game progresses at a much slower pace and the plot takes a backseat to open-world exploration. The sharp contrast between these two sections of the game makes it seem as though two entirely different games were mashed together into one unstable whole.
In addition to issues with pacing, a few major plot points fall flat. The relationship between Noctis and Luna isn’t fleshed out and the supposed romance feels hollow. The game tries to play up this romance and elicit an emotional reaction in the player at a few different points but I found myself indifferent to Noctis and Luna’s struggles. The game doesn’t give Luna a strong enough character for me to feel much for her. She plays the tired stereotypical role of the virginal saint, sworn to her duty to the gods, with not much to define her other than her piety. Even her relationship with Noctis is just another duty she has to perform in her role as oracle. Combing through interviews with the developers, I found out that a lot of Luna’s backstory was cut from the game and I feel that this background could have made her into a much stronger character. She could have assumed the role of a hero from Greek tragedy, tormented by questions of fate, free will and predestination but ultimately finding the strength to go on. As she is written now, she is nothing more than a trope, more a plot device than a character.
Luna is only a symptom of a larger problem with the game: it lacks strong female characters. Aside from Luna there’s Aranea, a side character clad in eye-candy armor who barely impacts the story at all; Cindy, a car mechanic (who oh-so-wisely wears revealing clothing while working on cars) helps Noctis along the way but who leaves no lasting impression, and Iris, Gladio’s sister, who is relegated to the background. Final Fantasy 15 is a frustratingly male-centered story, with little diversity in its casting. Final Fantasy has had strong heroines in the past and so it was disappointing that there were none in this newest installment.
The other major plot line that falls flat is the role that the Astrals, or gods, play. It seems as though in an earlier draft of the game, the summons were more fleshed-out than they are in the final product. A lot of important information about them such as their nature, their exact relationship with the king of Lucis and the empire are either glossed over in a few vague lines or are hidden in easy-to-miss books scattered throughout the game. From a visual and gameplay perspective, the Astrals are awe-inspiring so it’s a shame that they don’t have a written apparatus to support them.
Now that I’ve covered what doesn’t work in this game let me gush over what does work. The game’s greatest strength in terms of writing is the relationship between Noctis and his friends. The four of them share a relationship that feels deeper and more real than any I’ve seen in a video game in a long time. Thanks to the many small details that the game includes about each character (Ignis loves Ebony-brand coffee, Prompto loves chocobos, Gladio loves Cup Noodles, Noctis loves to fish) I feel as though I know these four men as intimately as I know my own friends. The banter the four of them share as they drive around or fight monsters (the four of them high-five and complement each other in battle) or run around in the fields deepens their relationship and makes it seem real. The four of them fit together like pieces in a puzzle and this is the secret to their bromance: each of them has their favorite seat in the car and duties they perform on the road (Ignis drives and cooks, Prompto takes photos and sets the table for dinner, Noctis sets the itinerary and fishes, Gladio helps them camp). Their strengths and duties complement each other’s and get the player invested in their relationship. All of the small details that the game includes about each character set up major developments and conflicts between the friends, and each bump in their relationship hits the player hard. The real romance of the game is not between Noctis and Luna but between Noctis and his friends. Their brotherhood is the best part of this game and after playing it I feel as though I’ve made four new friends.
Now that we’ve examined the game’s writing let’s dive into the gameplay. The game is divided into roughly two sections: the first half focuses on open-world exploration while the second half offers a linear experience. The first half is by far the better portion since the second’s restrictions stand in sharp contrast to the openness of the first. Noctis and friends are free to drive around the kingdom of Lucis in their car the Regalia (which is such a prevalent presence in the game that it feels like a character in and of itself), picking up sidequests and monster hunts along the way as they head to their next destination. If the car feels too cramped, Noctis can rent a Chocobo to travel or simply go on foot. Lucis offers so much to do that you can sink dozens of hours into this first half of the game without seeing many major plot developments. While many of sidequests boil down to the same thing (speak to a client, fetch an item and then collect your reward), the game’s battle system (which I will discuss in detail later) is so good that it turns even the most mundane fetch quest into an adventure. The fine combat system truly shines in the main story quests which feature some of the most beautifully-designed dungeons and locations in the series in addition to some awe-inspiring set pieces and boss fights. The game’s fantastic graphics, art design, and soundtrack all enhance the main line quests, presenting each step of Noctis and his friends’ journey beautifully. The sense of freedom and openness afforded by this first portion made me hopeful for the Final Fantasy series as a whole: Square Enix tried something new and it paid off handsomely. While there are a few hiccups here and there in the opening portion (some of the car rides are too long and there’s surprisingly little to do in the Regalia), it remains the highlight of the game.
To avoid any spoilers about the second half I will summarize it in a few brief sentences. The opening portions are fairly straightforward but then Noctis is separated from his friends and has to trek alone through a dungeon that lasts way too long. While the finale returns the game to its former high quality this drawn-out section is badly-designed and poorly-executed, so bad in fact that it diminishes the overall quality of the game.
The combat system is one of the most attractive features of Final Fantasy 15. Unlike Final Fantasy 13’s compromise between turn-based and action RPG combat, Final Fantasy 15 is fully committed to fast and furious action combat. The game plays similarly to Kingdom Hearts in this regard. Noctis can equip up to four weapons of various types at a time while his three friends are restricted to one or two. He can also equip accessories to enhance his power and change his clothes to serve as armor. Noctis can also contain the power of the three elements (fire, ice, lightning,) in magic flasks and toss them like grenades. While the game does feature a traditional level-up system, it also includes an Ascension menu where players can use Ability Points to earn certain bonuses (increased stats, better cooperation between the four characters, etc.).
The weapon and armor system is much simpler than it was in previous entries. Gone are the days when you had to scour the map looking for legendary swords or golden armor, hoping against hope that an enemy would drop a rare item needed to craft new arms. It’s entirely possible to complete this game with the weapons and items that are commonly sold in shops. No grinding needed.
The actual combat in the game is fantastic and engaging each foe is a joy. The player has full control over Noctis as he warps to and away from enemies as he tosses his weapons, as he blocks and parries enemy attacks, as he phases right through enemy attacks, switching out weapons on the fly to deliver a devastating counter-attack and performs special moves with his friends. By holding the square button to attack, triangle to warp and the O button to phase, controlling combat is easy and intuitive. Prompto, Ignis and Gladio all have good AI and will rack up as many kills as Noctis. There are a few issues with the combat however. The game is quite easy with only some of the sidequests and the final few bosses providing much of a challenge. There is also limited strategizing in the game. You’ll face most encounters head-on with little planning and little problem. The camera is oftentimes confused as to what it wants to look at and there are times when you’ll have no idea what Noctis is up to as the camera roams around and focuses on anything but our intrepid hero. Despite these few issues the combat is consistently fun and engaging.
Can Noctis save Final Fantasy? Was his effort enough to restore the series to its former glory? Thanks to Noctis the series will live another day. The game is good enough that it will renew fans’ faith in the series and its modern spin on the traditional Final Fantasy formula will no doubt attract new players. I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed in this game though. The game’s story could use some serious work and its sudden change from open-world to linear gameplay was a poor decision. There are all the elements of a great game in Final Fantasy 15 but they don’t quite cohere together. There is a prevalent feeling of disjointedness throughout, a lack of polish, a sense that the game wasn’t quite finished. These misgivings aside I am happy to say that Final Fantasy 15 is a worthy addition to the series.